I don’t think that any of us on the Easter Seals block break trip knew what we were getting into, or how much we would get out of it. As a freshman, community service at CC has been a great way to get off campus, meet new people, and have some adventures in my spare time.
CC offers many opportunities to serve, whether it’s working with the community kitchen on Sunday mornings, going on BreakOut Saturday service trips, or partaking in projects for philanthropic clubs such as Amnesty International or GlobeMed. However, after my weekend at Easter Seals, I began to think about the different impacts of various forms of volunteer work.
What is the difference between community service and service learning? What began as a simple intention to participate in community service and have a productive adventure over block break became something much more significant and unanticipated. I’m glad that I was unaware of what the trip would entail because if I hadn’t signed up, I would never have grasped the perspective that was set so far outside of my comfort zone.
Service learning occurs when the volunteer’s way of thinking is expanded and nurtured beyond the impact they have on a subject or cause. This is exactly what happened on our trip to Easter Seals.
After witnessing the unique way that our campers experience everyday life, I am sure that I will remember my camper long after she remembers me.
The manager of the camp served as our first unexpected encounter. Rather than the pastel polo shirt and bubbly personality I normally associate with camp directors, Tom is a Welsh punk musician in a dark overcoat who resembles Mad Eye Moody. After a day of group bonding and clearing ice from wheelchair paths, the campers’ eventual arrival sent me into culture shock.
About 25 other volunteers from various organizations also came to help, and I was grateful to have an experienced co-counselor to guide me in my awkward emotional paralysis. We first worked with Keslie, a 17-year-old girl with severe cerebral palsy, with everyday tasks that I normally take for granted. My fellow volunteer, a 16-year-old with plans of becoming an occupational therapist, made me wonder how someone could be so uniquely compassionate.
All six CC volunteers seemed to be similarly thrown. Max’s 220-pound camper was punching other boys’ faces, while Molly and Grace were being ordered by a spirited girl with a combination of autism and down syndrome to play an ominous funeral enactment game. Aleya fed her fever-stricken camper through a tube, Sophie spent all weekend singing to solicit the cooperation of a young girl, and I was changing the diapers of a high school student.
We had a whispered conversation of mixed emotions as we relayed these images. The overwhelming positivity of the other volunteers was unaffected by the dark sadness we experienced when we looked at our campers. I felt tremendous empathy for the parents who were hopefully enjoying some respite from their 24/7 jobs as caretakers over Valentine’s Day weekend.
I wondered whether human beings are the only species who have developed the resources and unique compassion to ensure the survival of disabled members, and I couldn’t fathom what that meant for the lives of their families.
Despite these doubts, by the time we met in the car the next day, my mentality had shifted. I was able to reflect on my own life as an able-bodied person through the eyes of my camper, who I came to admire. Keslie could barely manage to say “yes” to another small piece of bacon, yet she had started a cheerleading squad for disabled girls at her high school and wanted to help other children with cerebral palsy learn how to speak.
Rather than feeling discouraged by her dependence on others, she takes advantage of what she has with a strong sense of humor, as demonstrated through her laughter over our struggle to lift her out of her chair.
On my morning run, I felt glaringly conscious of how most of my actions were self-serving. After moving at the snail pace of Keslie’s wheelchair all weekend, it was strange to feel my striding legs and think about how different my day would be.
I thought about Keslie’s mom lifting her out of bed somewhere in Colorado and felt that in comparison with Keslie’s life, any of my struggles must seem a privilege.
I believe that a lot of people on campus right now are part of some sort of community service project, whether that means participating in a fundraiser, raising awareness for social change, or even building houses for Habitat for Humanity. I value this aspect of CC.
I hope that volunteers have the opportunity to go beyond community service and philanthropy and achieve some type of service learning. It is precisely this type of experience that enriches the education that many CC students want to take with them to graduation and beyond.